As in the original 1980 film, the new Fame cast is comprised of young, up-and-coming performers who will climb the steps of the High School for the Performing Arts to explore a wide variety of classic and contemporary artistic disciplines, including singing, acting, ballet, tap, jazz, modern dance, hip-hop, slam poetry, spoken word, traditional theatre, and cinema.
There have been some memorable cinematic insights that define the passionate and often destructive essence of the artist’s hunger for fame – Mark Rydell’s The Rose (1979), all three versions of A Star is Born (’36, ’54 and ’76) and Paul Verhoeven’s sorely under-rated Showgirls (1995), to name just a few. First-time film-maker Kevin Tancharoen’s remake of Alan Parker’s 1980 drama Fame puts a very 2009 spin on what it means to chase the ultimately shallow and worthless allure of seeing your name up in lights.
Unfortunately, just as fleeting is Tancharoen’s flavourless, dramatically-tepid hodge-podge of theatrical clichés and half-baked characterisations. Achieving fame is not easy, but it’s usually interesting.
In between toe-tapping dance numbers and screeching ballads, Tancharoen provides brief glimpses of the lives of ten students at New York’s Performing Arts High School (based on La Guardia Arts College on New York’s Amsterdam Avenue). Their personalities and plotlines are painted in broad brush strokes that rely upon the audiences familiarity with 'against-the-odds’ storylines to fill in detail. Vaguely interesting is the story of doe-eyed Jenny (a bland Kay Panabaker) and her teen-dream romance with the dishy, angel-voiced Marco (Asher Book). Though we never actually get to see her perform, we know Jenny matures over the course of her studies when her hair goes from straight-fringe to voluptuous waves (the Fame 2009 definition of character development).
Naturi Naughton is the most convincing as Denise. A mature, experienced performer (she was last seen as rapper Lil’ Kim in George Tillman Jr’s Notorious) and the only actor in the film to provide depth to her character, Naughton belts out the centrepiece-ballad 'Out Here On My Own’, the hip-hop showstopper 'Get On The Floor’ and the revamped title track with a real star quality.
All the other students are caricatures and sorely underserviced by a director far more at ease with choreographing his camera into the dance sequences than he ever is with defining individualistic traits amongst his cast. Kherington Payne as the sexy, ambitious Alice; Collins Pennie as the angry street-tough Melik; Walter Perez as the keyboardist/producer Victor; an insufferable Paul Iaccona as the Scorsese-worshipping cinephile (why he’s at the school, which doesn’t offer film courses, is never explained) – every one of them one-note nobodies, despite the wide-eyed enthusiasm the young cast apply to their performances.
The director’s inability to corral all his key players and story strands into a believable whole is best summed-up by the disappearing act his senior cast members perform. Kelsey Grammar is shut out completely after the first 20 minutes; his Frasier co-star Bebe Neuwirth similarly dispatched to the sidelines. Charles S. Dutton and Megan Mullaly have moments, but prove hammy and unrestrained respectively. And as school principal Angela Simms, dance legend Debbie Allen (the only returning 1980 alumni) is weak and no doubt cast to appease the ageing fans of Parker’s original.
Each of the faculty give that speech about having to work hard to achieve your goals; that flash-in-the-pan pizzazz and a sassy attitude won’t be enough to see you conquer Broadway, or the music charts or the great ballet companies of the world.
It is sage advice that director Tancharoen should have taken to heart. His camera dips and whirls and soars above the sweating dancers and spitting musicians; his staging a dazzling mix of colourful backlights and budget-be-damned costuming. But his drama and storytelling is blah, as if just showing his cast working hard to achieve their fame should be enough.
The wintry New York backdrop gives Fame a thin veneer of realism, but the film is really just about some kids putting on a show; a High School Musical for the 18-25’s. Grab the soundtrack, which highlights the great voices amongst the cast, and enjoy the best bits of the film through your iPod.